Book Reviews

Book review: The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values, by Brian Christian.

I was initially skeptical of Christian’s focus on problems with AI as it exists today. Most writers with this focus miss the scale of catastrophe that could result from AIs that are smart enough to subjugate us.

Christian mostly writes about problems that are visible in existing AIs. Yet he organizes his discussion of near-term risks in ways that don’t pander to near-sighted concerns, and which nudge readers in the direction of wondering whether today’s mistakes represent the tip of an iceberg.

Most of the book carefully avoids alarmist or emotional tones. It’s hard to tell whether he has an opinion on how serious a threat unaligned AI will be – presumably it’s serious enough to write a book about?

Could the threat be more serious than that implies? Christian notes, without indicating his own opinion, that some people think so:

A growing chorus within the AI community … believes, if we are not sufficiently careful, the this is literally how the world will end. And – for today at least – the humans have lost the game.

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Book review: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why, by Richard E. Nisbett.

It is often said that travel is a good way to improve one’s understanding of other cultures.

The Geography of Thought discredits that saying, by being full of examples of cultural differences that 99.9% of travelers will overlook.

Here are a few of the insights I got from the book, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten from visiting Asia frequently:

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Book review: The End of Alzheimer’s Program, by Dale Bredesen.

This sequel to The End of Alzheimer’s is an attempt at a complete guide to a healthy lifestyle.

Alas, science is still too primitive to enable an impressive version of that. So what we end up with is this guide that would overwhelm anyone who tries to follow it thoroughly, while still lacking the kind of evidence that would convince a skeptic.

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Book review: The WEIRDest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich.

Wow!

Henrich previously wrote one of the best books of the last decade. Normally, I expect such an author’s future books to, at best, exhibit regression toward the mean. But Henrich’s grand overview of humanity’s first few million years was merely a modest portion of the ideas that he originally tried to fit into this magnum opus. Henrich couldn’t quite explain in one volume how humanity got all the way to industrial empires, so he split the explanation into two books.

The cartoon version of the industrial revolution: Protestant culture made the West more autistic.

However, explaining the most important event in history makes up only about 25% of this book’s focus and value.

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Book review: The Precipice, by Toby Ord.

No, this isn’t about elections. This is about risks of much bigger disasters. It includes the risks of pandemics, but not the kind that are as survivable as COVID-19.

The ideas in this book have mostly been covered before, e.g. in Global Catastrophic Risks (Bostrom and Cirkovic, editors). Ord packages the ideas in a more organized and readable form than prior discussions.

See the Slate Star Codex review of The Precipice for an eloquent summary of the book’s main ideas.

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Book review: Lifespan: Why We Age – and Why We Don’t Have To, by David A. Sinclair.

A decade ago, the belief that aging could be cured was just barely starting to get attention from mainstream science, and the main arguments for a cure came from people with somewhat marginal formal credentials.

Now we have a book by an author who’s a co-chief editor of the scientific journal Aging. He’s the cofounder of 14 biotech companies (i.e. probably more than he’s had enough time to work for full time, so I’m guessing some companies are listing him as a cofounder more for prestige than for full-time work). He’s even respected enough by some supplement companies that they use his name, even after he sends them cease and desist letters.

I’m glad that Sinclair published a book that says aging can be cured, since there’s still a shortage of eminent scientists who are willing to take that position.

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Book review: Black Death at the Golden Gate: The Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague, by David K. Randall.

Imagine a story about an epidemic that reached San Francisco, after devastating parts of China. A few cases are detected, there’s uncertainty about how long it’s been spreading undetected, and a small number of worried public health officials try to mobilize the city to stop an imminent explosion of disease. Nobody knows how fast it’s spreading, and experts only have weak guesses about the mechanism of transmission. News media and politicians react by trying to suppress those nasty rumors which threaten the city’s economy.

Sounds too familiar?

The story is about a bubonic plague outbreak that started in 1900. It happens shortly after the dawn of the Great Sanitary Awakening, when the germ theory of disease is fairly controversial. A few experts in the new-fangled field of bacteriology have advanced the radical new claim that rats have some sort of connection to the spread of the plague, and one has proposed that the connection involves fleas transmitting the infection through bites. But the evidence isn’t yet strong enough to widely displace the standard hypothesis that the disease is caused by filth.

There was a vaccine for the bubonic plague, which maybe helped a bit. It was only 50% effective, the benefits lasted about 6 months, and the side effects sound like cruel and unusual punishment. It was controversial and often resisted, much like the compulsory smallpox vaccinations of the time.

Yet the plague didn’t seem to know that it was supposed to grow at exponential rates. That left an eerie sense of mystery about how the plague could linger for years, with people continuing to disagree about whether it existed.

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